The Journal
of Religion and Film

The Filmgoer's Guide to God

by Tim Cawkwell
Londen: Darton, Longman, Todd 2004

Reviewed by Freek L. Bakker
Utrecht University, The Netherlands

Vol. 9, No.9, October 2005

The Filmgoer's Guide to God

by Tim Cawkwell
Londen: Darton, Longman, Todd 2004

Reviewed by Freek L. Bakker
Utrecht University, The Netherland

[1] The context of this book is Christianity, as the author confines himself to 'the Christian understanding of the universe' (p. 3). Furthermore Cawkwell has limited himself to the films produced in the United States of America and Europe including Russia and Georgia. So, the God mentioned in the title of the book 'is the Christian one, not the Islamic, Jewish or any other kind of God' (p. 2). In selecting what films to write about another choice has been significant. Religion in film has in the view of the author two poles: 'at the one end the strict biblical film, at the other any film which deals with the ideas central to a Christian understanding of the universe, such as redemption, humility, compassion, unexpected salvation, paradise' (p. 3). The source of these parameters was the Cawkwell's fear of going nowhere had he opted for a broader scope.

[2] According to the filmography 125 films are discussed. What makes the book of special interest is that the author himself was a filmmaker. Unfortunately his oeuvres are not listed. However, his own experience in the field is revealed through the intense attention he pays to the camera work. Moreover he gives notice to the combination of music and images. So the book provides an analysis which pays attention to the several aspects of films.

[3] Tim Cawkwell does not use a specific method when he analyses the films he discusses. The basis of his analysis is association. However, as he is very familiar with the worlds of cinema, literature and music his views have a solid foundation. When a film is based on a book, he nearly always compares the two to come to lucid observations. Thus he compares, for example, Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest(1951) with Georges Bernanos' novel (1936). When a motif based on a certain book comes back several times, he compares all the films on this theme and analyses how each of them elaborates it. A good example of his method is the chapter 6, 'Guilty as Sin', in which he starts with Dostoevsky's book Crime and Punishment to show later on how this motif was developed in a number of films, among them Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966), American Gigolo (Paul Schrader, 1980) and Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959).

[4] Perhaps it is a surprise for some that the book also includes a chapter dealing with gangster films, 'Violence'. Cawkwell, however, regards the gangster as the dark doppelganger of the Western hero. And indeed, after a thorough analysis of The Funeral (Abel Ferrara, 1996), in which the author reveals that the film's message is that the life of the gangsters is as dull as the life of many people living suburban lives, he returns to Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment in which a petty murder leads to a story about divine justice.

[5] In chapter 7, 'Oppression', Cawkwell considers the war in cinema. He compares Bresson's A Man Escaped (1956) with Jean-Pierre Melville's L'Armée des (The Army of Shadows – 1969), as these two movies clearly reveal the difference in worldview (or better faith) of the two directors. Robert Bresson was a Roman Catholic and Jean-Pierre Melville an atheist. Adherents of both worldviews struggled side by side in World War Two, but the films show how differently they viewed the future of human being. It also results in a different approach within the movies they have made, for Bresson the release from prison is at the same time an analogy of religious deliverance, a perspective lacking in Melville's movie.

[6] The comparison between the Roman Catholic curé in Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest and the Lutheran pastor in Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light (1961) is very interesting. Both of them have to cope with the silence of God, but the context of a Roman Catholic parish and a Lutheran congregation is very different. So, both movies are full of despair, but the priest wrestles with sin, where the minister is coping with silence. The Mother Church is larger than the individual, while in Protestantism it is the individual who has to try to maintain a good relationship with God. Cawkwell adds another film to the comparison, Sous le Soleil de Satan (Under Satan's Sun – Maurice Pialat, 1987). This movie focuses on the question whether we have to with God or with Satan. So, Cawkwell formulates some deep insights which he reveals a familiarity with the atmosphere and theology of the different churches.

[7] Tim Cawkwell calls his book an introduction to religious films. It offers more than I have discussed in this review. He also discusses the films of the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkowski, Carl Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928) and a number of Jesus films, in particular Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel of St. Matthew (1964). It is very rich book, which indeed can be used as an excellent introduction into the field of religion and film, although it is less dependent of a certain method than, for example, Lloyd Baugh's Imaging the Divine (Franklin, Wisconsin 1997).

[8] Nonetheless, it would be interesting to speculate how the book would differ had Cawkwell the courage to include, for example, The Message (Moustapha Akkad, 1976), the only film about the prophet Muhammad, some films about Buddhist themes, and a number of so-called mythologicals, films about Hindu gods produced in India. The possibility exists that he would have written some more good chapters, for he has the talent to write good analyses.

American Gigolo

L'Armée des Ombres

Au Hazard Balthazar

Diary of a Country Priest The Funeral The Gospel of St. Matthew
A Man Escaped The Message La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc


  Under Satan's Sun

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